CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Fingerling" is a term biologists use to describe young fish that have grown to about the size of a finger.
Biologists in West Virginia must have really, really big hands.
Division of Natural Resources hatchery workers recently stocked more than 500 fingerling muskellunge that averaged a whopping 12 inches in length. Jeff Hansbarger, a DNR district fisheries biologist, called the fish "advanced fingerlings."
"There are certain waters where we can't stock normal-sized muskie fingerlings because they'd end up getting eaten by predators," Hansbarger explained. "For those waters, we grow the fingerlings to a size that makes them more difficult for predators to eat."
This year's stocking required an all-hands-on-deck approach, mainly because most of the young fish were being tagged for future research projects. Biologists, hatchery workers and volunteers from the Muskies, Inc. fishing organization gathered at the DNR's Palestine Hatchery to help with the effort.
"We harvested the fish from one of the hatchery's ponds, anesthetized them, measured their lengths, injected them with [passive electronic] tags, loaded them into stocking trucks and released them at several lakes," Hansbarger said.
The pond yielded 537 young muskies. Hansbarger said 100 of them did not receive tags.
"We sent the untagged fish to [Jackson County's] Woodrum Lake and [Ohio County's] Bear Rocks Lake. The 437 tagged fish were sent to [Lewis County's] Stonewall Jackson Lake, [Lincoln County's] Upper Mud River Lake and [Monongalia County's] Mason Lake."
The tags, called PIT tags, are information-coded electronic microchips enclosed in plastic cylinders not much bigger than grains of rice. Biologists use large hypodermic needles to inject the tags under the fishes' skin near their dorsal fins.
"PIT stands for 'passive integrated transponder,'" Hansbarger said. "When a tagged fish is recaptured, we can pass an electronic reader over the tag and identify the fish by its tag number."
This year's batch of tagged advanced fingerlings will be used in two DNR research projects. In the first, Hansbarger will attempt to validate a non-lethal method he's been using to determine muskies' ages.